The never ending text – how audiences keep stories alive
By Sally Pomme Clayton
My Grandfather was wonderful storyteller. He would stand by our beds and transport my sister and I to the palace of the Fairy Queen, a world of tricks and mistakes, where magic always put everything right. I loved fairytales and myths, from Sleeping Beauty to Orpheus and Eurydice. I was supposed to leave them behind - but couldn't. I am passionate about fairytales; their metaphorical images are a well of mystery I can never get to the end of. My Grandfather instilled in me a desire to tell fairytales, and from a young age I started to imitate him. I would sit my sister and cousins in a circle and tell them my made-up saga, 'Pig Loo and Wolfie'. These characters had a tense friendship that was always getting them into trouble, but pop-star cat, Suzi Chantier, would sort them out! The saga never came to an end as my audience always begged for more. I started to learn how the audience makes the story, and how much I wanted to serve that process. And I have been doing it ever since.
Fairytales have travelled long journeys, undergoing many transformations. Images in the narratives themselves describe how stories have been passed on: blown about on the wind; flowing down streams into the Ocean of Stories; scattered as seeds from the World Tree; strewn as tangled threads on hedgerows waiting to be gathered. Different versions of stories have spread, crossing borders, religions and languages. There are so many Cinderellas: in Russia the magic helper is a doll; in China it's a fish; in South America a turkey; a cow in Afghanistan, and in Germany it is a tree that grows out of the mother's grave. Beverly Naidoo's Cinderella of the Nile (Tiny Owl 2018) tells one of the oldest versions, from Ancient Egypt. Similar images and structural patterns are re-clothed in local geography, customs and beliefs, and passed on. Why is this material so enduring? Its images seem to have alchemical properties that mirror our inner life. And the narratives are flexible, allowing each teller and listener to create their own meanings. Traditional stories have been: performed in tea houses and market places; told at firesides and bedsides; recorded by devoted listeners; gathered into collections; made into films and operas, then returned to performances on street corners, and now on Zoom! I have been performing The Phoenix of Persia (Tiny Owl 2019) online for schools and families. Traditional stories are kept alive by constant re-cycling!
I have lived with some fairytales for decades, continuing to work on their performance, changing them, sometimes many times. The performance is never fixed in a way a story printed on a page is. This might seem like a nightmare to a novelist, as the text never comes to an end! Sometimes I long to change words printed in my books, and my performances diverge from my books significantly, including The King with Dirty Feet, (Otter-Barry Books 2021) which has just come out in a new paperback edition. This story is based on a folktale from India, which in turn was made into a satirical poem by Rabindranath Tagore. I have been performing it for years, creating my own version inspired by making children laugh. It has been through many incarnations. It was made into an animation by the BBC with me telling the story. This text was part of 'Global Shoes', an exhibition by The Brooklyn Museum. I made an interactive app of it with a group of friends. And at last, it is a picture book. I am still responding to my audience though, and now often change the gender of characters, and this in turn gives the ending a different emphasis!
Perhaps because pen and page are left behind, storytelling remains a Cinderella of the arts. Storytelling is a paradox; I am both mouthpiece for something ancient and innovator, re-interpreting material, making new meanings from old patterns and stock characters. This process links me to bards across the World. Among them the storytellers of: Northern India - the Pandavani; Kyrgyzstan - Manaschi; West Africa - Griot; Iran - Naqqali; Turkey - Aşhik; Bengal - Palagan. Their art depends on the audience, the story is shaped by listening as much as telling. The audiences' spontaneous responses feed the story, inspiring improvisation and composition of: jokes; asides; dialogue; emotion; imagery and rhythm. These new elements become part of the structure of the story, which is performed again and completed by another audience. So even though a story might have been told thousands of times - it is always contemporary.
Traditional stories are resilient, but their survival depends on them being re-made so that the story is relevant and will live on. Publishers such as Tiny Owl and Otter-Barry Books are part of this process, giving value and space to the diversity of fairytales and to the voices who want to tell them. I long for more organizations to value and support the live performance of stories too, so that audiences can actively be part of their continuation. Fairytales carry us to places where wishes are satisfied, forgotten things remembered and sorrows spoken of, they give meaning to endings, courage and hope. Fairytales take us somewhere else and bring us back to ourselves. You are part of this process too - tell and read your children fairytales, find the ones you loved as child, dig into your own heritages, and discover innumerable stories from all over the world. Celebrate stories on World Book Day and be part of the endless circle of storytellers, receiving, transforming, and passing on.
Sally Pomme Clayton turning The King with Dirty Feet into a live performance with her collection of teeny tiny shoes! She is available for virtual, and real, author visits: www.sallypommeclayton.com
Watch - Sally Pomme live on zoom for families with: 'Persephone and the rites of spring'. Saturday 3 April 2021, 16.00pm. Free but booking needed.
Listen – 'Tales of the Statue' Sally Pomme's BBC Radio 4 programme about the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park, New York, and how it has become, since the 1960s, a place where people listen to stories. Tuesday 9 March 2021 14.30